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Bucky Gleason: Federal charges put amateur hoops on trial, and it's about time

Alex Nwora was like many watching from afar. He knew little more than what he read online and heard on television: Four assistant coaches and six others were rounded up and charged in federal court in alleged recruiting schemes that rocked college basketball from its foundation.

Nwora isn't just the men's basketball coach at Erie Community College. He's the proud father of Jordan Nwora, a 6-foot-8 freshman forward at Louisville and the best player to come out of Western New York in years. The former Park School star is now part of a Cardinals program in the midst of upheaval before his first college practice.

Coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich were placed on administrative leave Wednesday, a precursor to getting fired. Nwora had committed to Louisville even though it already was on probation, in connection with a sex-scandal involving prostitutes before he arrived, because he wanted to play for Pitino.

And now?

"I'm just waiting for all the facts to come out," Alex Nwora said by telephone the other day. "I'm not making any comments. I'm trying to figure out what happened, what's going on, and make the right decision for Jordan."

The facts will come out in court eventually, but to say early signs are troubling is like saying the Ice Age was a tad chilly. Assistant coaches from Arizona, USC, Auburn and Oklahoma State were indicted along with a representative from Adidas and others from the financial world who had connections to basketball.

Charges included bribery, conspiracy and wire fraud. We're not talking about NCAA violations and a slap on the wrist. All are serious criminal offenses that could result in prison time. Among the coaches under indictment is former NBA and Auburn star Chuck Person, who was an assistant at his alma mater.

Amateur basketball is being put on trial. And it's about time.

It wasn't clear who, and nobody knew when, but you could sense this day coming. For years, maybe decades, there had been a stench lurking around amateur hoops with its nauseating cast of characters, from street agents posing as AAU coaches to fast-talking reps from shoe companies to win-at-all-cost college coaches, all swimming in the same cesspool.

Any time big money is available, greed and corruption aren't far behind. If leeches exist in banking, rest assured they can be found in basketball.

We'll see what else the feds unearth in a continuing investigation.

Here's hoping it confirms what we already know, that the NCAA deserves a share of the blame for this mess. College basketball is a multibillion-dollar industry, a television and merchandise gold mine that was built on the backs of so-called "student-athletes" who amounted to cheap labor. The same is true for football.

Before the 1980s, the fundamental equation – playing ball in exchange for a free education – seemed fair. But it has become grossly outdated over the past three-plus decades with bags of TV money and other revenue flowing into NCAA coffers and far outweighing athletes' compensation on the grand scale.

It was only a matter of time before assistant coaches who were determined to win recruiting wars – validating their value and adding credibility to their programs – abandoned traditional recruiting methods. Inevitably, word would spread among players about cash being available. A scandal was destined to unfold.

And it did.

Pitino certainly is no angel. That much, we do know. Eight years ago, he admitted to having sex in a restaurant with a woman who later attempted to extort him. He pleaded ignorance in the scandal involving prostitutes and players. He repeatedly has denied knowing anything about possible corruption at Louisville.

To be clear, nobody from his program has been charged. However, the university has been identified as a school that funneled $100,000 to the family of recruit Brian Bowen before he committed to the school. Court papers suggest Louisville convinced Adidas to pay (see: bribe) the kid's family and steer him to Louisville.

More talent for a program leads to more success. More success leads to more national exposure. More exposure means more interest and more revenue for shoe companies. More money for shoe companies means bigger contracts for universities and their coaches.

Around and around we go – where it stops, nobody knows – in a pay-to-play merry-go-round like none other in the history of college hoops.

You can safely assume the FBI merely brushed the surface with the indictments handed down Tuesday following a two-year investigation. Congress wants to know more about the charges and could launch its own inquiry. You can be certain that a number of people implicated will wind up testifying for the government in an effort to spare themselves.

The power of the federal government should not be underestimated. It loses about as frequently as the Harlem Globetrotters. The FBI supposedly has wiretaps and other evidence linking the 10 people charged to the crimes they have been accused of. Only the naïve would believe it ends there.

ESPN analyst Jay Williams, the former Duke star who worked as a recruiter for Ceruzzi Sports and Entertainment after his NBA career was cut short, said his company paid $250,000 to Kevin Love's AAU coach with hopes the star forward would sign with the agency after leaving UCLA. Love signed with another agency.

Shoe companies sponsor AAU teams with top recruits, while paying off coaches, who help sell their brands. It goes well beyond television these days. As anyone with children would attest, kids are glued to cellphones and other devices while keeping up with future stars on YouTube and basketball-related websites.

The scandal isn't only about the 10 people, so far, who have been charged with a crime or Pitino and other coaches or financial advisers and shoe companies or unethical behavior. This is an indictment of the entire sport. It's about all of the above. Rules need to be rewritten. Laws need to be enacted.

Young players like Nwora appear caught in the middle while we wait for the facts.


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